Thursday, December 11, 2014

Black Mirror Episode 2: "Fifteen Million Merits"

The first episode of Black Mirror, “The National Anthem,” satirized social media; Episode 2, “Fifteen Million Merits,” broadens its scything sweep to include advertising, avatars, virtual reality, and reality TV—perhaps less successfully, but just as thought-provokingly, as its predecessor.

Scene one. Our protagonist, Bing, awakens in a cell-like cube of a room, just barely big enough for his twin bed. All four walls are screens, currently displaying a cheerful, crudely animated barnyard scene. As Bing goes about his day, we learn more about his world (although never, as I’ll argue, quite enough). He and his fellow drones spend their days pedaling sluggishly on stationery bikes, surrounded by the very screens they’re helping to power. Episode 3 of Gimlet Media’s new podcast Reply All, “We Know What You Did,” is about the guy who invented the popup—because Ford didn’t want their ads appearing alongside gay porn on his website, as it happens—and his subsequent apology in The Atlantic (the headline of which called his creation “The Internet’s Original Sin”). In the world of Fifteen Million Merits, that original sin has metastasized into something out of Stanley Kubrick. Because almost every wall is a screen, ads can actively pursue you, appearing at the worst possible times. When Bing tries to strike up a conversation with a girl he likes, a porn channel pops up on the wall, a cheery voice crying “Hey, regular user!” “SKIPPING INCURS PENALTY / RESUME?” it asks, as he shamefacedly tries to wave it away.

(Speaking of waving it away: the technology of Fifteen Million Merits uses what’s called a gestural interface, like that employed by the Precrime police force in Minority Report. On Episode 95 of 99% Invisible, “Future Screens Are Mostly Blue,” guests Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel point out that gestural interfaces are actually super impractical because they’re physically exhausting to use (apparently Tom Cruise had to keep taking breaks on set!). In Fifteen Million Merits, though, these interfaces work as a visual metaphor for how disconnected these people are, both from the physical world and from each other. Emotionally significant moments unfold via avatar; one character cycles while playing air violin.)

Anyway, when Bing turns off the porn channel, virtual currency is subtracted from his account. It’s all too easy to draw parallels between the show and one’s own life; and these irritating, semi-sentient ads reminded me of nothing so much as the desktop version of Spotify, which can tell when you’ve not only muted an ad but even turned it too far down and pauses it until you turn the volume up again, penalizing you for not paying attention. Black Mirror, though, ups that intrusiveness to Clockwork Orange levels: sometimes, when Bing closes his eyes, all four walls of his room flash red, and a woman’s voice intones “Resume viewing, resume viewing, resume viewing” over a piercing, high-pitched whine until he opens them again.

It’s not clear why this happens some times but not others—and the episode suffers somewhat from refusing to fully explain its own rules. For example, take the scene in which Bing’s crush, Abi Kahn, auditions for Hot Shot, an American Idol–like competition show. Backstage, someone gives her a George Saunders–like substance called Compliance, which she’s told will “stop [her] puking with nerves” but which, as its name suggests, will force her to do whatever the judges say—or at least that’s what I initially thought. When one of them tries to get her to take off her top, though, she successfully refuses, and its unclear whether the life-altering decision she makes at the end of the scene is drug-induced, despair-induced, peer pressure–induced, or some combination of the above.

There are two such Hot Shot scenes, and Jessica Brown Findlay, with her lovely husky voice and hopeful eyes, 100% nails hers. Daniel Kaluuya, as Bing, doesn’t quite—but it’s not so much his fault as that of his speech. Bug-eyed with rage, dripping with sweat, dagger-shaped shard of glass pressed to his throat, he screams at the dumbstruck judges. “All you see up here, it’s not people, you don’t see people up here, it’s all fodder! And the faker the fodder is the more you love it because fake fodder’s the only thing that works anymore! Fake fodder is all that we can stomach! Actually, not quite all. Real pain, real viciousness, that we can take!” This monologue is meant to be a searing indictment of the dehumanizing nature of our virtual lives—but that’s what the entire episode is, in its every detail, from the shuffle of Bing’s feet as he approaches the bike to his listless pace when he mounts it, from the oppressive absence of wide shots to the overwhelming pattern of identical rooms that the camera reveals when it finally pulls back. For Bing’s speech to work, he needs to be saying something that every single frame hasn’t been saying all along.

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